WASHINGTON, 28 September 2010 (Reuters) – State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said negotiating teams from the two sides met through the weekend in New York in U.S.-mediated talks and saw some progress toward resolving a key issue ahead of the January vote, which is due to take place alongside a larger referendum on independence for southern Sudan.
"We thought that they were useful meetings. They established a foundation for resolving the Abyei challenge," Crowley told a news briefing.
He said the two sides were due to meet again next month in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa "and we would expect that the parties should come to the meeting prepared to reach an agreement on Abyei."
The New York talks, mediated by the U.S. special envoy for Sudan, Scott Gration, and another senior State Department official, took place after last week’s mini-summit on Sudan at the United Nations attended by U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders.
International concern is rising ahead of the planned Jan. 9 votes in both Abyei and southern Sudan which could see the south split off as Africa’s newest country, with some observers worried about renewed violence between two sides that fought a long civil war before a peace deal in 2005.
Obama has offered the northern government in Khartoum the possibility of improved ties with the United States if it works to bring peace to Sudan, including the violence-ravaged western region of Darfur.
THREE MONTHS TO GO
Both sides pledged at the U.N. meeting to hold the referendums on time. But U.S. and other officials say it remains unclear if Khartoum is either able or willing to pull off the complex and sensitive votes with just over three months to go.
Crowley said the U.S.-led peace effort was focused for now in Abyei, a disputed central region which is being given its own vote on whether to join the north or the south.
The two sides have been deadlocked over the membership in the region’s referendum commission, while borders also have not been demarcated following threats by the nomadic Arab Missiriya in the north.
The south’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement says the Khartoum government is settling thousands of Missiriya in northern Abyei to influence the vote. The Khartoum government denies this.
Crowley gave no details on which specific issues had made progress in the New York talks, which followed meetings between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Ali Osman Taha of Sudan’s national government of Khartoum and Salva Kiir, president of the semi-autonomous south, last week.
But he said the United States remained committed to helping Sudan resolve a range of issues — including questions of eventual borders, citizenship, and oil revenue sharing — ahead of the January referendums.
The United States has in recent weeks significantly stepped up its diplomatic efforts in Sudan, which Clinton herself called a "ticking time bomb" in the heart of Africa.
Gration has made repeated trips to the region, and was recently joined on the U.S. team by retired U.S. Ambassador Princeton Lyman, a former envoy to South Africa and Nigeria with long experience in Africa.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)